20 diciembre, 2016

Shab-e Yaldā, the darkest night

Shab-e Yaldā is the name of one of the most ancient celebrations of Iranian culture that traces back its origins to the same Achaemenid period and the establishment of Zoroastrian religion as the official religion. This night that normally coincides with December 20th or 21st commemorates the supremacy of light upon darkness and Iranian families gather together to celebrate sharing traditional meals, music and poetry.

The darkest night
Most characteristic of the night of Yaldā is its simultaneous occurrence with the winter solstice, what makes it the longest night of the year. Zoroastrianism told that those were the hours when Ahriman and his daevas became more powerful and traversed the world without boundaries. Hence mankind stayed awake and protected by the fires that were lighten all night long to dispel the daevas. Feasts and prayers were celebrating upon Mithra, the yazata of the Sun and the one who protected sunlight every morning, and also offerings were made to ask for prosperous harvest[1].
It was at the same time believed that after that long night the day would entirely belong to Ahura Mazda, the Great Creator. The rising of the sun after X symbolized the genuine victory of light upon darkness. Persian Poet Sa’di wrote in his Bustan: «True morning will not come until Yaldā night is gone»[2].

Yaldā table.
Picture via:

The čellas
To properly understand the meaning of the night of Yaldā firstly it must be located correctly inside the Persian calendar. According to a Zoroastrian denomination, a čella refers to any period including forty days, and there is three of those each year: one in the summer, two in the winter. The summer čella, called qalb al-asad, starts 1 Tīr /21st June and ends 5 Mordād/26th July and covering 35 days. It is not as important as the other two in comparison, what leads to Mahmoud Omidsalar to think of a latter creation by analogy of the wintry ones[3]. 
There are two relevant čellas in winter that are linked with different festivities or traditions of Persia:
a) čella-ye bozorg or čellabozorga, «the great čella». From 1st Dey/22nd December until 11th Bahman/30th January.
b) čella-ye kūček or čellakūceka, «the small čella». From 10th  Bahman/29th  January until 30th Bahman/20th de February. The latter reaches number 40 joining 20 days and 20 nights.
 The transition period from one čella to the other is known as čāṛčār, «four-four». It includes the last four days of the great čella and the four first days of the small one. Traditionally it includes the coldest days of winter. On that subject an interest legend is told where every čella represents a brother, both daevas related to cold and snow: Ahman and Bahman. Apparently those two siblings argued during čāṛčār period and Bahman scorn his older brother because he didn’t caused enough cold to hurt the people and the flocks. «If I had as much time as you do, I would have made the weather so cold that unborn colts would freeze in their mother’s womb», he said. And Ahman replied: «you can’t do anything because the spring arrives on your heels»[4].

Akhlamad Waterfall in winter, province of Khorasan (Iran)

The traditions of Yaldā
The night of Yaldā is located inside čella-ye bozorg, the longest, and is one of the greatest celebrations of Iranian folklore. Traditionally the family gathers at the eldest member of the family if possible to stay the night and share dinner. For this special night a great variety of fruits and sweetmeat is prepared, some of them nearly exclusively. In some places of Iran it is believed to attract better the fortune up to forty different meals must be arranged at the table (referring to the Yaldā period where the night of Yaldā is).
One of the most popular fruits to be consumed is watermelon to assure health and well-being of those who eat it. It is believed that if summer meals are eaten in winter people will be protected against the cold and they will not suffer illness like flues or fevers. Another quite popular fruit is pomegranate representing fertility and the regeneration cycle of the earth. The outer covering symbolizes the dawn whereas the colour of the grains represents the life glow. Both pomegranate and watermelon are presented as an offering to ask for prosperity and happiness[5].
Yaldā is a magically potent time that primarily is associated with food. Eating carrots, pears, pomegranate or green olives guarantees protection against the bite of harmful insects, especially scorpions, and chewing garlic prevents joints pain.
After the dinner poesy is usually recited and the Dīvān of āfe is the favourite choice. With those verses normally divination games are played, although tradition recommends not trying it more than three times, as it could anger the poet.  
Among other curious traditions of Yaldā exist the one of whispering into the ear of a donkey as is considered the definite cure for any ailment. Mixing camel fat with a mare’s milk and after burning them will generate a smoke that will protect the space from insects[6].

Yaldā table with a book of Ḥāfeẓ.
Picture vía:

Boyce, Mary: «Festivals I. Zoroastrian», Encyclopædia Iranica, New York, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1999, p. 543-546. Available online: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/festivals-i
BOYCE, Mary: «Iranian Festivals», Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3(2). Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 792-818. 
MIRRAVAZI, Firouzhe: Celebrating Yalda Night. Compilation available online:  http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Celebrating_Yalda_2.htm
OMIDSALAR, Mahmoud: «Čella», Encyclopædia Iranica, New York, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1990, p. 123-125. Available online:  http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/cella-term-referring-to-any-forty-day-period

[1] MIRRAVAZI, Firouzhe, op. cit.
[2] OMIDSALAR, Mahmoud, op. cit., p. 123.
[3] OMIDSALAR, Mahmoud, op. cit., p. 123.
[4] A. Enjavī, Jašnhā o ādāb o moʿtaqadāt-e zemestān, 2 vols., Tehran, 1352 Š./1973, p. 3. Visto en OMIDSALAR, Mahmoud, op. cit., p. 123.
[5] MIRRAVAZI, Firouzhe, op. cit.
[6] OMIDSALAR, Mahmoud, op. cit., p. 124.

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